‘Glory’ – We, the Hunters
‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Football. Bloody hell.’
~ Sir Alex Ferguson
Most of us in India would remember 1999 for an event far from being closely associated to the beautiful game we call football – the Cricket World Cup: Sachin Tendulkar’s injury which could have prevented him from playing the Cup or Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid’s record partnership at Taunton. I was no different. While counting down to the days, I read every article that came on the sports pages of newspapers with immense interest, making fantastical permutations and combinations as the likes of a nine-year-old would be akin to carrying out.
In a country where zealous fan(atic)s worship cricket as a religion, it is hard to stay away from its lure. However, that May 27, 1999 newspaper carried another snippet that almost went unnoticed, except to this nine-year-old’s keen eye. A team called Manchester United had won the Champions League, from being one goal down and without their first-choice midfielders. Although my memory serves as an impediment here, I can very well recall a grainy black and white picture of the players and an aged fellow, who looked like my grandpa, lifting a Cup. And to this nine-year old underdog, that is me, it was a tale of gut and gumption; this come-from-behind story of a team called Manchester United held my admiration. I did not know of them earlier, all my knowledge was limited only to FIFA World Cup matches and Golden Boot winners – Davor Šuker being the latest of them. All things considered, it was shallow and shallow still on the day of May 27, 1999. But, a team called Manchester United etched itself in my memory, firmly. That was the beginning of my becoming a Red Devil, possibly a glory-hunter.
A glory-hunter is a euphemism for foreign supporters of a particular football club who are spread world over. It is particularly acute amongst fans of Manchester United. These foreign fans have been the target of jibes by rival supporters and locals alike. What exactly defines a glory-hunter? For one, a glory-hunter is not a local fan, a person from the same place of origin as the club, a “big club”. Even a Cockney-speaking Londoner supporting Liverpool is at risk of being called one. Accusations range from having no connections with the club and choosing it only because the club will safely be amongst the best for years to overusing the club mottos (‘Glory Glory Man United’ or GGMU in the case of Manchester United). They are also criticised for their lack of knowledge regarding the club’s history, culture or chants. They are always the ones susceptible to switching allegiances when their club is going through a torrid time, might even switch back and forth. A glory-hunter’s attack on a rival club or a player is more vitriolic (using names such as Chelsh*t for Chelsea etc.) than a local. These and so many more points make the workings of a glory-hunter.
Ever since the English Premier League hit the Indian television screens, there has been a surge in its viewership. Needless to say, Indian fans make a sizeable chunk of the global fan support of Premier League clubs. True, there is the domestic I-League with matches happening all year round but what makes an Indian football viewer, irrespective of the glory-hunter status, watch EPL, and openly support a foreign club having no prior attachment to it?
A majority of the football fans in India only know of ‘The Big Four’ of England — Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Only recently Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur and the likes of those who are constantly pushing for a place in the ‘Big Four’ bracket are winning some favour, too.
Moving over to southern Europe, there exist only Barcelona, Real Madrid, A.C. Milan and Inter Milan. Names like Juventus, A.S. Roma, Atletico Madrid, Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Valencia have been only heard of. Juventus for Alessandro del Piero and Gianluigi Buffon, Roma for Francesco Totti, Atletico Madrid as the club who previously had Fernando Torres and Sergio Aguero before they were stars, Bayern Munich for the (Arjen) Robben-(Franck) Ribéry duo, Bayer Leverkusen for Michael Ballack and Valencia having been home to two Davids – Villa and Silva.
The knowledge is shallow and I won’t mince any words about it. Football has suddenly transformed from a sport in India to also a form of ‘peacocking’. The more you flaunt what you know, that is rattle off names, tactics, formations and player names, the ‘cooler’ you are. Yes, I have been a part of it too. But, if you have your national team languishing at the lower rungs of the world rankings and a domestic league which can be called mediocre on its best day, people will always look for options.
Inspiring moments in this millennium have been sporadic. The only ones worth mentioning are perhaps East Bengal’s ASEAN Club Championship win way back in 2003, Baichung Bhutia’s stint at Bury F.C. in England and Sunil Chhetri’s at Kansas City Wizards of the MLS in the USA; and to say that the country was arguably the best team in Asia from 1950 to 1962 is a matter of shame. There is no glamour in it, neither for players nor for the fans: a once thriving club culture is all but dead. This is why Jose Ramirez Baretto is not as hated in Kolkata as Carlos Tevez is in Manchester, and why Steven Dias’s #8 jersey has no takers while Steven Gerrard’s #8 sells like hot cakes. And when you have competitive football matches of the highest order, players of world repute being beamed in your television screens every weekend, why would one want to pay and go watch a local football match in a decrepit run-down stadium?
Another accusation that comes the glory-hunter way is that they don’t attend matches ever. I stand guilty as charged, myself. Yes, United takes pride in its working class roots, from its inception as Newton Heath of yore to the Manchester United it is now. But, a two-way ticket to Manchester and back will knock the stuffing out of any middle class Indian home. Add to that, a currency that depreciates considerably in comparison to the Pound-Sterling. Thus, it is not feasible for a fervent United fan to watch a match and come back without burning a hole in his or her pocket. If United rules your heart then no matter where you belong, irrespective of the colour of your skin, you will take pride in your team even from your bedroom. My ooh’s and aah’s have constantly woken my neighbours on Champions League nights as it is almost morning by the time the telecast ends in India.
But fans’ glory-hunting charges notwithstanding, here’s another side of the story. Why did Andriy Shevchenko leave A.C. Milan for Chelsea in 2006 when he was easily the first choice striker and also the second highest goal-getter for the club? Why did he, instead, choose to be a part of Roman Abramovich’s lavishly funded Jose Mourinho squad? Whiffs of glory-hunting exist in players as well, I say, sticking my neck out. There are more examples like Dimitar Berbatov who moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Manchester United for a record-breaking fee a few years ago after being the club’s top scorer. Also, add David Silva, Yaya Touré and the Manchester City bunch. Everyone, inherently, wants a share of fame and glory. Add to that, whopping salary packages and you have an offer you can barely refuse. No one really remembers John Terry’s missed penalty in the Champions League final at Moscow in 2008 except in statistics. Players are human beings as well. The lure of top-flight football and expectant silverware is too much for them to resist. Even within that, a Serie A or the Bundesliga club pales out in comparison to their Premier League or La Liga counterparts, given the more attractive pay-packets and squads that allure them.
To know United, one must first know of Newton Heath – of February 6, 1958 and The Busby Babes, of Bryan Robson, George Best, Sir Bobby Charlton, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and the Eric Cantona period. If you love a club, you fiercely support it no matter what and this is what the glory-hunters lack along with the basic knowledge of the club they “support” – its workings and history. Oh, and please, let’s not get into the clichéd million-dollar question perennially doing the rounds on social networking sites, as to who is better, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. I have followed United faithfully ever since that fateful day, from Roy Keane to Ruud van Nistelrooy, the departure of David Beckham to the coming of Ronaldo, from Owen Hargreaves and his injury woes to Sir Alex bringing in the new guard; the da Silva brothers (Fábio and Rafael), Phil Jones, Javier Hernandez, David de Gea and others. I sat perplexed, like every other Red Devil in the stadium when Sir Alex subbed Park Ji-Sung for Patrice Evra in the thrilling draw against Everton last year; a game we should have won. United makes my weekends and dictates my moods – it’s my love. So, I am most welcome to take that glory-hunter tag with a pinch of salt.
I fervently dream of going to Old Trafford and following the team around on their travels for an entire season. Someday, I shall. Like Arthur Miller once so rightly said, “A lot of good things have come out of dreaming.”